Philippines ‘concerned’ over report on China’s construction activities in Spratlys

Kaycee Valmonte - Philstar.com
Philippines �concerned� over report on China�s construction activities in Spratlys
This handout satellite image taken on November 4, 2022 by Maxar Technologies shows a land formation (C) at Eldad Reef in the Spratly Islands, in the disputed South China Sea. The Philippines said on December 21, 2022 it was "seriously concerned" over a report that China has started reclaiming several unoccupied land features in the disputed South China Sea.
Handout / Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies / AFP

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 7:46 p.m.) — The Philippines said it is verifying a report that detailed how China is ramping up construction of artificial islands in unoccupied features of the Spratly Islands. 

“We are seriously concerned as such activities contravene the Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea’s undertaking on self-restraint and the 2016 Arbitral Award,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement sent to reporters late Tuesday evening. 

“We have asked relevant Philippine agencies to verify and validate the contents of this report.”

Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that Beijing started building land formations in the unoccupied northern part of Spratlys, over Eldad Reef (Malvar Reef), citing unnamed Western officials. Reports dating back 2014 also took note of China’s reclamation activities in the area.

The unidentified sources also said similar construction activities are taking place over at Lankiam Cay (Panata Island), Whitsun Reef (Julian Felipe Reef), and Sandy Cay.

When reporters sought comment from the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines, Beijing called Bloomberg’s report “fake news” on Wednesday and instead told reporters to refer to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative which, according to its website, is an “international research network and not affiliated with any institution.”

‘Potential major crisis’

Manila has claims over parts of the Spratly Islands. The 2016 Hague ruling also noted Beijing violated clauses under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for its island-building activities and after the state failed to warn Chinese vessels against activities engaged in the islands. 

READ: How the Hague court ruled on the Philippines’s 15 arguments

China has repeatedly downplayed the 2016 arbitral ruling and the Philippines has ended up filing hundreds of diplomatic protests against Beijing’s activities. Manila also sent 193 note verbales to China this year, where 65 of which were sent during President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s administration.

“This is a potential major foreign policy and national security crisis that the Marcos Jr. administration is facing,”  Julio Amador, CEO of Amador Research Services, told Philstar.com in a Viber message on Wednesday.

Philippines urged to act

The development comes weeks shy of Marcos Jr.’s state visit to China in January. Analysts said the chief executive should raise the issue to his counterpart, Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

“The continuing presence of the Chinese maritime militia, the satellite debris incidence, and the Bloomberg report of new reclamation activities should make the government think about what message the president must take to Xi Jinping when he visits Beijing,” Amador said.

“Obviously, he needs to express his disappointment that China continues to act in an unfriendly manner.”

READ: Marcos accepts Xi invite to visit China in January

Amador raised that China, in return, might leverage its economic propositions for Manila should Marcos raise the issue. However, Pacific Forum International Director of Cybersecurity and Critical Technologies Mark Manantan said the president should make clear the country’s “red lines” in its foreign policy with China, especially when it comes to the West Philippine Sea.

“Our government [should have] the ability to separate issues of foreign security, defense, with our economic [interests]. If we look at our Southeast Asian neighbors, they manage it really well,” he told Philstar.com when asked about Marcos Jr.’s upcoming Beijing visit on Monday.

READ: US VP Harris brings new programs, loans for Philippines

Manantan adds that should the Philippines fail to assert the arbitral ruling during Marcos’ China trip, it would “[undermine] the current momentum of the US-Philippine alliance,” noting Washington’s recent high-level visits in Manila, on top of how Manila is getting more support from other nations in asserting the historic ruling.

RELATED: 'Stronger military, alliances needed to complement talks on West Philippine Sea'

Washington has made several statements this year that it would come to Manila’s defense should there be armed attacks. 

Most recently, with a statement of support amid the escalating presence of Chinese vessels in Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal in the Spratly Islands and right after the Philippine Navy’s encounter with China after retrieving rocket debris off of Pagasa Island.

READ: Embassy says US should let Philippines, China settle 'vessel swarming' issue

“I think the upcoming visit to China is going to be tense, if this conversation is expected to happen. But it also sets the tone for, not just the Philippine-China relations, but our foreign policy in general because the South China Sea is a big cornerstone of Sino-Philippine relations,” Manantan said.

Vietnam’s expansion activities

Meanwhile, the Asia Maritime Transparancy Initiative (AMTI) also noted in a report dated December 14 that Vietnam is also conducting construction work on some of its outposts in the Spratly Islands throughout the second half of this year. 

"Vietnam’s dredging and landfill activities in 2022 are substantial and signal an intent to significantly fortify its occupied features in the Spratlys," the report said. The DFA has yet to comment on this.

AMTI noted that Hanoi has reclaimed 420 acres (169.9 hectares) of land in this year through Namyit Island, Pearson Reef, Sand Cay, and Tennent Reef. Its outposts in Namyit Island, which span 117 acres (47.3 hectares), and Pearson Reef, at 119 acres (48.1 hectares), are not bigger than its previously largest outpost in Spratly Island that only spans 97 acres (39.2 hectares).

Meanwhile, it also kickstarted new dredging and landfill activities in five features, namely at the Barque Canada Reef, Discovery Great Reef, Ladd Reef, Cornwallis South Reef, and the Alison Reef. 

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